JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new album, The Nashville Sound, is a beautiful piece of American music-making, but watch yourself: it will light a fire under your ass. “You’re still breathing, it’s not too late,” Jason sings.
This album is a call, and the songs on it send sparks flying into a culture that’s already running so hot the needle on the temperature gauge is bouncing erratically in the red. And while it’s understandable that, in this moment, some people want their radio to help them drift away, this finely calibrated set of ten songs is aimed right between the clear eyes of people who prefer to stay present and awake. It’s a call to those who won’t cower no matter how erratically the world turns, and who aren’t afraid of what looks back when they look in the mirror. Bruce Springsteen did that. Neil Young did that. Jason Isbell does that.
There are songs on this album that cut to the chase. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know,” Isbell sings on the album’s first single, “Hope the High Road.” “But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch. I’ll meet you up here on the road.” As singular as that lyric is, there’s nothing coy or obtuse about it. Meanwhile, other songs here take a subtler tack.
Check out track three, “Tupelo.” It plays like a warm ode to Northeast Mississippi-on the first few listens, it sure sounds like a loving tribute-but on the fourth you realize that the town the protagonist is extolling is actually a blazing hellhole. Perfect-as a hideout, anyway. “You get about a week of spring and the summer is blistering,” Isbell sings. “There ain’t no one from here who will follow me there.” It’s the kind of twist that compels the fifth listen-and the fiftieth.
As with Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern, and his double-Grammy-winning follow up, 2015’s Something More Than Free, The Nashville Sound was produced by Dave Cobb. Isbell says that he and Cobb created a simple litmus test for the decisions they made in the two weeks they spent at RCA Studios (which was known as “The home of the Nashville Sound” back in the ’60’s and ’70s): they only made sonic moves that their heroes from back in the day could’ve made, but simply never did. It’s a shrewd approach-an honest way to keep the wiz-bang of modern recording technology at arms length, while also leaving the old bag of retro rock ‘n’ roll tricks un-rummaged. Lyrically, The Nashville Sound is timely. Musically, it is timeless.
It’s also worth noting that this album isn’t credited to Isbell alone. For the first time since 2011’s Here We Rest, Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, gets title billing. “Even when I was writing, I could always hear the band’s stamp on the finished product,” Jason says. “These songs needed more collaboration on the arrangements to make them work, and I felt like the band deserved it after the way they played.” Given Cobb’s strict insistence on cutting songs live with no demos or rehearsals, you can easily imagine how the brilliantly raw performances on the record will translate to the stage when the band takes these new songs out on the road.
And boy, there’s nothing like a 400 Unit show. Not just because the band smokes, but also because Isbell’s fans are among music’s most ardent. They listen to these songs for months and months on their own, and that momentum rolls them right up to the doors at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, or the Beacon Theatre in New York or the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. And when the band kicks in, they are ecstatic. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll show that feels like fellowship.
Which begs a question: Why do Jason’s songs strike us so deeply? What makes this music of the soul? The answer has to do with Jason’s authenticity, his intellect, his rootedness in both tradition (see: the childhood in Green Hill, Alabama, near Muscle Shoals, where he grew up picking and singing in the style he remembers here on “Something To Love”) as well as modernity (see: Jason singing about anxiety, or his complicated relationship to his iPhone).
Simply put, Jason has a gift for taking big, messy human experiences and compressing them into badass little combustible packages made of rhythm, melody and madly efficient language. The songs are full of little hooks-it could be guitar line that catches one listener, or a quick lyric that strikes to the heart of another-and an act of transference takes place. The stories Jason tells become our own. The music is coming not from Jason and the band, but from within us.
As you listen to this record, you will hear many themes: humor, heartache, wisdom, beauty, hope. But chief among them, strangely, is leadership.
If Southeastern (2013) was the Getting Sober record (Jason has been searingly honest in both songs and interviews about the time he spent in rehab), and Something More Than Free (2015) was the New Clarity record, maybe this one, The Nashville Sound, is the Way Forward.
And who better to lead us forward than Jason Isbell? Jason is a relentless and fearless selfinterrogator. (The first line of “Cumberland Gap”-“There’s an answer here if I look hard enough”-will be familiar to those who know him.) And this album is a challenge, a gauntlet in song: Let’s claim ownership of our biases (“White Man’s World”). Let’s embrace and celebrate the uncomfortable idea that the force that activates both life and love is death (the instantclassic “If We Were Vampires”). Let’s consciously choose light over darkness (“Hope the High Road”). And for God’s sake, if you are feeling anxious, alone, disenfranchised, depressed, mad as hell, or scared as shit, find something that gasses you up and work at it (“Something to Love”). Jason, it seems, after years grinding the rail that separates terra firma from the brink, has put in the sweat equity it takes to hug it out with his demons and fill his life with meaning, bright and clean.
If that sounds good to you, this album lights the path.
FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS
Frank Turner is aware of the passage of time, of the influence of days that drag and months that gallop can exert on what he would probably never dream of calling his body of work. After all, it has been a number of years now since the hardcore troubadour transformed himself from The Boy Who Surely Could Not, to The Man That Did; it has been years now that his name has appeared in the largest type on ticket stubs that permit entry to such venues as Wembley Arena, or the Royal Albert Hall; just as it has been years since the sound of his voice projecting itself from a digital radio was anything like a surprise, let alone a novelty.
From the ferocious, sweaty box venues of rock band Million Dead to starting from scratch with an acoustic guitar in pubs and bedrooms in 2005, Frank’s popularity grew with his artistry. Selling out gradually bigger venues – Camden’s Barfly, King’s Cross Scala, Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Wembley Arena (both captured for posterity on DVD); four albums in England Keep My Bones ends up selling 100K copies and rising; performing in front of millions worldwide before the official opening ceremony of London 2012 Olympics; a personal milestone of winning Mastermind with his specialist subject of Iron Maiden. Each year seemed to bring a new elevation, a plateau which initially seemed out of reach but just became a foothold for ascending further.
Naturally, such upward mobility provides reasons to be cheerful, and in ways that it would be lazy to term predictable. But at the same time, the mindful songwriter will take heed: for in order to gain a foothold one can subconsciously lose an edge. The last couple of years shows he’s resolutely refused to let that budge him from an onward course. He’s lived with and inside Positive Songs For Negative People, his sixth album, since writing songs for it in 2014 and continues to garner career highlights.
The album reached number two in the UK album charts upon release in August 2015 (beaten only by Dr Dre’s first album in 16 years, the soundtrack to highly-acclaimed NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton); he played his tenth consecutive slot at Reading and Leeds festival in August 2016, an unprecedented achievement; he released his Amazon number 1 bestseller The Road Beneath My Feet in paperback in February 2016; he sold out a huge autumn and winter 2016 UK tour of regional venues; he released his third compilation of b-sides and rarities, The Third Three Years, plus a bonus disc of unreleased tracks called Ten For Ten (10 tracks for 10 years); and in 2016 alone, he and the Sleeping Souls played to over a quarter of a million people.
And so it goes on.
Frank has his biggest US show to date in Boston come 2017 but before that, he hurtles towards his 2000th show. Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls – that most supple, dexterous and punishing of permanent backing bands – put in the hard hours to keep this momentum going, never taking forward motion for granted nor allowing obstacles and inertia to slow them down.
If Frank Turner’s fifth album, Tape Deck Heart, released in 2013, was a catharsis of licked-wounds, not to mention the sting of raw and recent personal failure, then Positive Songs For Negative People is the sound of a man putting his show back on the road.
“In some ways I feel like this record is my definitive statement, a summation of the first five records,” says Frank. Though even with ten years and six albums on the clock, it’s already time to move onward. Positive Songs For Negative People may merely be the end of a chapter of an engrossing and lengthy story involving thousands of participants – fans, friends and loved ones. In 2017, Frank Turner will have played over 2,000 shows, written and begun recording new music, celebrated a decade since the release of his debut album Sleep Is For the Week, and laid more road and groundwork for a journey with no end in sight. There isn’t a soul that will be left behind if you choose to join him.
Frank Turner is the author of six albums and has four rarities collections to his name alongside a number of EPs and singles. A Wessex Boy by inclination, these days his post is delivered to Holloway, North London. He intends to spend the next 18 months, and probably the rest of his life, on tour.
Sleep Is For The Week (Jan 07),
Love Ire & Song (March 08),
The First Three Years (Dec 08) – a collection of singles, b-sides and rarities
Poetry Of The Deed (Sept 09)
England Keep My Bones (June 11)
The Second Three Years (Jan 12) – a second collection of single, b-sides and rarities
Tape Deck Heart (April 12)
Positive Songs For Negative People (Aug 15)
The Third Three Years (Dec 15)
Ten For Ten (Dec 15)
Kerrang! Spirit Of Independence – 2010
AIM Hardest Working Act – 2011
AIM Best Live Act – 2011
ASCAP Vanguard Award – 2012
Celebrity Mastermind – January 2014 (specialist subject Iron Maiden)